Monday 22 February 2016

Lully's Armide staged by Music at Woodhouse

Thalie Knights - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse - 'Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Thalie Knights - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse
Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Lully Armide; Thalie Knights, Kieran White, Gheorghe Palcu, Marcio da Silva, Stephanie Gurga; Music at Woodhouse
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Lully's tragedie lyrique staged on a small scale with a sense style with a young cast.

Woodhouse Copse is an Arts and Crafts cottage orné in the Surrey Hills designed by Oliver Hill with a garden by Gertrude Jekyll, originally owned by the daughter of the playwright Brandon Thomas (who wrote Charley's Aunt). 

Woodhouse Copse is now the home to Music at Woodhouse, artistic director Monika Saunders, which puts on staged opera productions with young singers. On Sunday 21 February 2016 we caught the second of two performances of Lully's Armide performed as the culmination of a week long Baroque Academy. Under music director Marcio da Silva (who also staged the opera and sang) a small but hard-working cast performed Lully's 1686 tragedie lyrique, with the OrQuesta baroque ensemble directed from the harpsichord by Stephanie Gurga. Some roles were double cast, and we saw Thalie Knights as Armide with Kieran White as Renaud, Gheorghe Palcu as Hidraot and Ubalde, Marcio da Silva as Aronte and La Haine (Hatred), Emma Newman-Young as Siodonie, plus Hiroshi Kanazawa, Jessica Ng, and Helen May. Stacey Mastrian, who was due to sing the role of Phoenice was ill so she acted the role whilst Stephanie Gurga sang from the harpsichord.

Kieran White - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse - Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Kieran White - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse
Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Woodhouse Copse has two performing spaces, an outdoor theatre where large-scale opera is performed in the Summer (they present Puccini's La Boheme in September 2016) and an indoor Baroque theatre created out of an indoor swimming pool (the pool remains under the wooden floor thus giving the space a greater resonance than might first appear). In fact, the opera was rather bravely presented almost in the round with the audience on three sides of the acting area. This worked well because Armide is relatively unusual in tragedie lyrique in that it concentrates quite closely on the central relationship between Armide and Renaud with few of the side diversions and sub-plots that often occur in the genre.

The draw back, was of course, the difficulty of getting perfect ensemble. Logistically is made sense for the chorus (sung off stage by members of the cast) to be place away from the instrumental ensemble, but this did lead to moments of imperfect ensemble. But when just the soloists were singing they and the six instrumentalists seemed to have moments of almost telepathic agreement.

Marcio da Silva's production was simple and stylised, based around a central dais with much by-play with candles and some lovely rich costumes. There were some cuts, some of the smaller roles had been lost and we did not get all of the ballet but overall the production was remarkably true to the original's intentions and it helped that Da Silva had got a pair of extremely powerful performances from the lead roles, Thalie Knight and Kieran White, as Armide and Renaud with neither singer, apparently, being phased by the extreme closeness of the audience.
Thalie Knights, Marcio da Silva - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse - Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Thalie Knights, Marcio da Silva - Lully: Armide - Music at Woodhouse
Rob Tyson Knights Photography
Mezzo-soprano Thalie Knights (a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and ENO Opera Works) made a strong, passionate Armide. Tall and distinguished, she had a commanding stage presence making Armide's sense of power quite believable. This is important, because in the crucial scene in Act Two when Armide looks at the sleeping Renaud and is about to kill him, Lully gives the character a powerful recitative where her sense of power is overwhelmed by an unfamiliar uncertainly arising from her sudden love of Renaud. It helped that Knights is bi-lingual so that her sense of the fluidity of Lully's setting of Philippe Quinault's poetry was very fine. The long stretches of lyrical recitative/arioso in Lully can drag unless the performers have a strong sense of the poetry underlying the music (Quinault's words are fine in their own right making the operas very much a meeting of words and music). Knights also made us care for Armide; the opera is very much about her struggles with love and Knights gripped us from beginning to end.
With any production of a tragedie lyrique perhaps the first rule is find your haute contre. In the young tenor Kieran White (currently studying for his masters at the Royal Academy of Music) Music at Woodhouse found someone who could not just cope admirably with the high tessitura of Renaud's role but make it sound expressive, lyrical and where necessary powerful. White had an admirable fluidity in his upper range and avoided that sense of sounding permanently surprised which some young tenors bring to the haute-contre repertory. White also had the advantage of a highly personable stage presence, making Armide's obsession with the knight all the more believable. Musically the role of Renaud is a relatively passive one, but White brought out the lyrical beauties of the piece such has the scene where he is lulled to sleep by magic.

The cast were all extremely hard working, many singers had two or three roles and when not on stage all took part in the various chorus and semi chorus moments so that there were some places where the off-stage chorus had the benefit of Kieran White's lovely high tenor on the top line. Gheorghe Palcu made strong, rather sinister Hidraot (Armide's uncle) who encourages her to find a husband with Palcu making the scene rather threatening. And Palcu was joined by tenor Hiroshi Kanazawa in the remarkable comic scene in Act Four when two knights make their way through Armide's monsters and seductions to rescue Renaud.

Marcio da Silva made an impressive Hatred (not in drag as is sometimes the case as Hatred is referred to as female in the libretto). As the musical director of the enterprise Marcia da Silva had a secure sense of style and French diction and demonstrated this admirably in this role, clearly relishing the opportunities which Lully and Quinault give the performer. Da Silva and Knights made thrilling theatre of the scene where Armide invokes Hatred so she might hate Renaud permanently but then fails and keeps wanting to love him.

Woodhouse Copse
Woodhouse Copse
Emma Newman-Young made a strongly supportive Sidonie (one of Armide's confidantes). Jessica Ng and Helen May were sympathetic as Wisdom and Glory in the opening prologue, and popped up during the main opera in a wide variety of roles. Inevitably with the spreading of resources there were moments when the sense of style slipped somewhat, resources seemed stretched and not everyone's French diction quite matched that of the principals, and there were a couple of scenes when you felt that the production could have done with one or two more experienced singers in smaller roles.

But overall this was a stunning achievement. The amount of work needed to create a stylish performance of a Lully opera is immense and what the group had achieved was remarkable. The production was not only creditable but created a wonderful sense of intense theatre, helped by the fact that in Thalie Knights and Kieran White the opera had a pair of lovers who both looked and sounded good, and brought a great sense of style to their parts.

The small but hard working instrumental ensemble of Carina Drury, Cecile Ross, Heather Bourne, Eleanor Harrison, Alexis Bennett and Stephanie Gurga achieve miracles. There were moments which inevitably cried out for larger instrumental forces, but overall they achieved not a little magic.

During summer performances at Woodhouse Copse, the audience is invited to picnic but this being Winter we were invited into the main house where we were entertained and before hand given an introduction to the work by Monika Saunders.

Performances of Lully's operas in the UK are extremely rare, and full stagings rarer. It was heartening to find a performance which not only successfully addressed the challenges of performing Lully's Armide on a relatively small scale, but did so with wit and not a little sense of the correct Lullian musical style, plus some fine singing with moments of real ravishment.

Music at Woodhouse's Baroque opera academy returns on 4 & 5 June 2016 when they will be performing a double bill of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Hasse's serenata Mar'Antonio e Cleopatra. Puccini's La Boheme is performed in the Lakeside theatre on 10 & 11 September 2016. Other events include Carlo Goldoni's play The Liar in a new version by David Crook with music by Leonard Lawrence (25 &26 June 2016), a concert of music by and about Alma Mahler curated by pianist Elizabeth Mucha (22 May 2016), and the Hieronymous Quartet's Beethoven Cycle (6 March, 19 June), plus an opera gala on 19 March 2016. Full information from Music at Woodhouse.

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